LEDUC, Alta. — A proposed class-action lawsuit against an Alberta city alleges its fire department is systemically discriminating against female firefighters and the abuse is going unchecked by leadership.
The lawsuit has been filed by two female firefighters with the Leduc fire department, south of Edmonton, who claim they were subject to physical and sexual assault, harassment and bullying while on the job.
“The fire department created a system and culture where the abuse of female firefighters was systemic, common and tolerated,” reads the statement of claim, filed on Feb. 24.
“Any attempts to report such abuse were suppressed through retaliation, harassment and bullying. This class action seeks redress for these wrongs and to prevent them from ever happening again.”
Allegations contained in the statement of claim have not been proven in court. The class action has yet to be certified by a judge.
Leduc City Manager Derek Prohar said in a statement the city is aware of the serious allegations. He declined to provide further comment as the matter is under investigation and now before the courts.
Plaintiff Christa Steele, who started her career with Leduc Fire Services in 2002, alleges incidents of assault and harassment began almost immediately and have continued.
Steele alleges in legal documents that male colleagues exposed their genitals to her, touched her inappropriately and forced themselves onto her. She also said they spread false rumours about her personal and sexual life and threatened her safety with remarks like “watch your back,” say the documents.
The lawsuit says one incident involved an unnamed male firefighter who measured female firefighters for their uniforms and radio straps.
Steele claims he sexually assaulted her in a bathroom stall and another time “cornered her in the mess kitchen to take her measurements” and touched her genitals and breasts.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Steele, 45, said moving forward with the lawsuit has been terrifying.
Steele is still an employee with the fire department but is not currently working. She is unsure if she’ll ever work as a firefighter again despite it being her passion.
“I would retire doing this job if my hand wasn’t forced,” she said. “We need our workplaces to be like a second home and we need to feel safe going to these places.
“I could have put my head down, kept my nose clean and gone into survival mode … but I need for women and men to know that abuse isn’t acceptable and sanctuary trauma isn’t acceptable.”
The second plaintiff, Mindy Smith, claims in documents that she also faced harassment and assault from the unnamed firefighter after asking for a replacement uniform belt. Smith says he blocked the exit of a supply room and sexually assaulted her.
An investigation into his actions led to his termination, says the statement of claim, but he continued to attend fire service events despite being banned.
Both plaintiffs allege their mental health and careers have been severely harmed because of the systemic abuse.
“Other female employees of the fire department remain unwilling to come forward due to fear of retaliation, but have experienced similar incidents of discrimination, harassment and assaults,” says the lawsuit.
It further states a recently completed third-party investigation into the allegations substantiated claims made by Steele and Smith, which prompted them to move forward with legal action.
The suit claims the City of Leduc and the fire department were negligent in providing a safe workplace and breached their protected rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The women are seeking punitive and compensatory damages.
— By Alanna Smith in Calgary
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2022.
The Canadian Press